Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grad Student Guide to Having Fun at SBL

Offering advice and survival tips about SBL has been a popular topic lately, so I thought I’d add my 2 cents worth. As a grad student who’s been attending for several years now, I think I have a good perspective on why going to SBL is important and how you can make the most of your trip. So here’s my advice. Some are serious, some are in jest. It’s up to the reader to discern how best to apply them.

1. Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking around most of the day for 3-4 days straight. It’s important.

2. Try to meet as many people as possible. This is very very easy to do. Either find an experienced guide to show you around and introduce you to all their friends, or strike up conversations with anyone whose name you recognize.

3. Strike up conversations with senior scholars. Act like you know them. See if they play along. So many fawning grad students introduce themselves every year that for all they know, they have met you before.

4. Dress professionally. As a grad student, attending SBL is a multi-year networking effort. Crafting an image is important. The last thing you want an interviewer to randomly remember about you is how poorly dressed you were at SBL several years earlier.

5. Schedule your time, but remember your priorities. People before papers. Use sessions chiefly as a means for meeting people. The important papers will get published later.

6. Remember your place. There is a hierarchy of importance among all the people mingling at SBL. Remember your place on the totem pole or on the food chain or whatever metaphor strikes you.

Sample hierarchy (least to greatest): Security guard at exhibit hall > first year seminary student > support staff at publishers’ booths > seminary students > 1st year university grad students > MA students > PhD students > ABDs > newly minted PhDs w/o tenure track employment > editorial staff at publishers’ booths > junior professors on tenure track > full professors > senior scholars > academic celebrities. (List was revised to separate ABDs from newly minted PhDs. In the interest of full disclosure, I exist in the blank white space in between "PhD student" and "ABD.")

7. Be nice to the staff at the book tables. This is a variation of the “be polite to the receptionist when going to a job interview” rule. You don’t want to have word of your bad behavior spread. Remember, you’re wearing a nametag.

8. Depending where you are in the food chain, the book exhibit staff may not treat you with the same deference you show them. If they won’t sell you the “last” copy (as happened to Pat), feign surprise and exclaim, “Oh no! My advisor sent me in here to buy it for him. You may have heard of him/her - (insert name of senior scholar / academic celebrity here). You’re sure there’s nothing you can do?”

9. Name drop all the time. They don’t know you from Adam, but they will recognize the names of important people that you may or may not have actually met. Your status will increase by association.

10. Pretend that you understand the papers and surrounding discussions on arcane topics. Smile and nod. Remain silent but appear thoughtful. If you must speak, repeat what you’ve heard them saying but do it subtly and in your own words.

11. Interject in every discussion that turns philosophical, theological, or methodological with “yeah, but how will that help me in my ministry?” Repeat in variant forms ad infinitum.

12. Invite yourself to any and all receptions. It helps to know the name of at least one major scholar at each school. At cash bars, ask them to put your selection on the tab of (name senior scholar from institution).

13. Buy books in small quantities over the course of the whole conference. What fun is it in buying everything the first day? Plus it’s a lot easier to carry one or two extra books at a time. Have the publisher’s ship them whenever possible. Are you really going to read 12 books on the plane ride home?

So, there it is. The grad student’s guide to having fun at SBL. I hope you enjoyed it. Remember that some of these suggestions are tongue-in-cheek. Use at your own risk. If you can’t tell which are serious and which are not, don’t risk it. Ignore the whole thing.

P.S. Don’t be afraid to say hi if you see me wandering the halls at the conference. After all, meeting people is what I’m all about at SBL.


  1. Thanks for the tips, Doug

    A new thing I realized--that's probably old hat in networking circles--your friends are not as important as your friends' friends.


  2. What a hoot! As always - I enjoy your sense of humor, and having functioned as a receptionist - am glad to know you treat the people at the book tables well! ;-)